TAIPEI -- Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Thursday criticized opposition parties for continuing to block a trade deal with China. Ma said closer ties with the mainland are needed to secure economic growth and remain competitive, particularly against South Korea.
Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with Beijing last year that would further liberalize the flow of services across the Taiwan Strait. But critics say the deal, which still needs to be ratified by Taiwan's legislature, will hurt small businesses in Taiwan.
Ma's comments come as Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a state visit to South Korea to discuss various issues, including a bilateral trade agreement between Beijing and Seoul. Officials and media in Taiwan often use South Korea as a benchmark for Taiwan's development, as both focus on the tech sector and are considered two of Asia's key emerging economies.
A free trade agreement between Beijing and Seoul would negatively impact Taiwan's market share in China, Ma said, adding that he is "extremely anxious" that the island will fall behind South Korea when it comes to benefiting from the mainland's growing economy.
"Whenever the government tries to take measures to catch up with South Korea, we are held back by the opposition painting China as a monster," Ma said. "If the opposition sticks with these tactics, they will end up destroying Taiwan's economy."
Ma, who is visiting Taiwan's Latin American allies, made the comments during a televised press conference with Taiwanese media in El Salvador.
Ma has promised that Taiwan's economy will enjoy a major boost from closer ties with China, but the island has seen tepid growth over the past two years, expanding only 1.48% in 2012 and 2.09% in 2013. Officials expect the island's gross domestic product to grow 2.98% this year.
"It is impossible for Taiwan not to rely on China for economic growth," Ma said, adding that Taiwan should also pursue other export markets, including Southeast Asia, at the same time.
Jonney Shih, chairman of leading Taiwanese PC maker Asustek Computer, echoed Ma's sentiment.
"The Chinese market is a very important market," Shih said during an economics forum on Thursday. "If we have good leverage in the Chinese market, it will help Taiwan have a better foundation."
Shih acknowledged the growing concern that only the rich will benefit from trade deals with Beijing and said that the government needs to make the "right long-term" decision after weighing its options.
While Ma appeared to blame Taiwan's economic doldrums on domestic opposition to increased trade with China, a senior government official said the island's economy has been losing steam in recent years due to insufficient internal momentum and the tech sector's struggle to innovate.
National Development Council Minister Kuan Chung-ming said Taiwan's tech companies' reliance on their past success in manufacturing has "created barriers" for them in transitioning smoothly to the mobile era.
"We didn't try very hard to explore new territories," Kuan said, also at the economic forum Thursday. "That's how our manufacturing lost its leadership" in the world.
He added that Taiwan is also suffering from an outdated set of regulations and restrictions that are unfavorable for incubating startups that could help Taiwan become more competitive.